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Chapter 22

Zen and the Art of Rat Interpretation



The two men walked a while in silence, listening to their footsteps together. “You know,” Jack finally said, “Robinson... he wasn’t really my father.”

Ebreth didn’t say anything.

“Heck, Lita wasn’t really my cousin,” said Jack. “We never let it get in our way. Family is what you make of it... im-hoe, anyway.”

“She really is a cute kid.”

“I can’t wait to see her.”

They walked on a little more. “It’s ironic,” said Ebreth. “In a way. The one time I’ve ever cared enough to really want a woman to myself, and I just can’t seem to have it no matter what either of us does.”

“She married you, Ebreth,” Jack objected.

“You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you?” He sighed and buried his hands in his pockets. “I just--I’d really wanted this to be over. I’m so tired of fighting for her, Jack. Will I ever get to just have her?”

“You do,” Jack said. “There’s no one so clueless that they can’t see that, Ebreth.”

“There’s no one who doesn’t know I couldn’t keep her, either.” He sent a pebble skittling off the curb and into the harbor, plink. “There never will be, now.”

Jack frowned. “It was a fluke, though... she was possessed by the Totem. Everyone knows that, too.”

“I can make excuses till the tides come in, Jack, but the fact is if I hadn’t been a catatonic wreck the one who was with her then would have been me.” He folded his arms and looked off at the sails bobbing over the Northsea. “I was weak, and I wasn’t there. If I had been none of this would ever have happened. I couldn’t do it and everyone knows it and everyone is going to have to know it. I’m going to have to tell our daughter this.” He shook his head. “I just wish... it was so nice last week, Jack. Just me and her, no one second-guessing us, nothing I had to prove. I just felt so, free.”

“It’s a state of mind,” Jack said. “You could have that whenever you want. The one second-guessing you is you, Ebreth.” Ebreth sighed. “What you need to do is just act like you did on vacation, forget everyone else. Act like this is your family and you know what you’re doing, and no one will ever call you on it. Not Schneider, not anyone. If you’re confident enough, no one can second-guess you. You taught me that.”

“The fine art of bullshitting,” muttered Ebreth. “What a legacy.”

“I think it’s more than that,” Jack said thoughtfully. “I think there’s an element of dynamical modeling going on there... if you act like something’s true, it becomes true. If you believe it, you can remake yourself. You already have, in so many ways... I don’t think that’s something to be ashamed of.”

Ebreth was frowning, something nagging at the back of his mind. “You know, I think the Rat was telling me something like that the other night,” he said. “Only I think he was talking about my pool game.”

“Well, the Rat is a very cosmologically perceptive kind of, uh, guy,” said Jack. “Maybe you should listen to him.”

“Hnh,” said Ebreth, and walked. “Maybe I should.”

A Little Help From Above



“Demons,” muttered Alderon, sending ichor splattering with quick slashes of his rapier. “Why did it have to be demons?”

“Pathetic fools,” sneered Slade, leaning back against the wall of the now-deserted convenience store smugly. “Evil and chaos really are stronger. You will learn as I did. Nice guys finish last.”

Thalia really wanted to argue with him, but she was trying to keep one of the chitinous demons from chewing her face off now that her only spell was gone.

“What you plan will not be countenanced!” reverberated a strange voice, and a caped figure in a faceless silver mask flew into the fracas, ice jetting from his gloved fists into the demon menacing Thalia. It made an inhuman shriek. “Never fear, Janus is here!”

“What?” Slade sounded more disgusted than anything else. “Will I never be free of these petty interruptions?”

Janus pointed at the villain, his thumb cocked oddly. “I never liked you,” he stated, and flame enveloped the black armor.

“Is it me,” Jason whispered to Chloe, “or is this all a little... well... deus ex machina?”

Chloe shrugged and healed him. “Why complain?” she whispered back.

Slade strode through the flames seemingly uninjured. “Bah!” he exclaimed. “I have no time for this! Save these mewling children if you will, or follow to your quarry. You have no time to do both.” He sprang to his shadowy steed’s back. It seemed to mind the heat of his armor no more than he did, and took to the air.

“So much for tracking him,” muttered Berryn.

“Maybe he left a trail on his way here?” Thalia hoped.

“Curses!” cried Janus. “Foiled again!” Water jetted from his hands, buffeting the toad-like demon back into Sashami’s swing. “Get him, axe babe!”

“Please don’t call me axe babe,” sighed Sashami, severing one of its four arms.

Rebuilding



Khyrisse leaned on the grip of the baby pram a little as she walked the sidewalks of New Trade. The sun was shining brightly, and the people seemed cheerful and unconcerned. Almost as if nothing had happened. And in truth, not much had: there were only two fatalities from the bombing, the ambassador from Dyved and a legal secretary named Pearl, both struck by falling debris. Lora was in Dyved now kissing asses, and Khyrisse had given Pearl’s family an extremely generous pension, but frankly after the Madness two deaths didn’t put much terror in the general populace anymore. It was the leaders who were uneasy now. Presumably that was what the damn illithids wanted.

Khyrisse sighed. The truth was nobody could afford a war right now, especially with an enemy as distant and menacing as the Gilans. No one even knew if the state of New Gila was directly involved or not. Rani was investigating (“Anything that injures me gets investigated for free,”) but she had made it clear it could be years before this was one she cracked. There was nothing Khyrisse could do but put it on a back burner for now. They could have killed her daughter, maybe still might, and there was nothing she could do about it. This was not helping her sleep nights.

She turned into the main plaza. Ebreth was already there waiting, and so was his friend Boule. The masseuse’s eyes lit up at the sight of the baby carriage. “Ah, there she is!” She crossed the square in a festive click of high heels, her dark face splitting in a grin. “Congratulations, Director. Hard work doin’ that, eh?”

Khyrisse put her hand in Ebreth’s, smiling shyly down at the ground as Boule bent over the pram to coo at the newborn. “Pretty one she,” she admired, grinning broadly back over her shoulder at Ebreth.

He stiffened, strangely enough. “Thank you,” he said, an oddly formal distance in his voice. Khyrisse looked a question mark at him, but he wasn’t looking at either of them now.

“Very pretty.” Boule laughed and tossed her intricately beaded hair. “Well, good luck a di bot’ a you.”

She waved cheerily and disappeared into the crowd. Khyrisse gave Ebreth a wry look as he joined her at the pram. “Now what was that all about?”

“Nothing,” Ebreth said shortly.

“Come on, s’parde-vois. I’m not blind.”

He sighed and rubbed his face. “She’s just giving me a hard time,” he said. “I guess it’s her right. She put up with enough of that last guy horsing around.”

“I don’t get it,” said Khyrisse. “All she said was the baby was cute. That’s not... jinxing her or anything, is it?”

“No.” Ebreth sighed. “It--there’s subtext, that’s all. On the Islands, right, we have this, ah, tradition, that a girl’s beauty has to do with the pleasure her mother had in conceiving her.” Khyrisse suppressed a shout of laughter with herculean effort, unable not to think of the glamorous time-tossed Ember. She couldn’t tell Ebreth about her, and didn’t want him to think she was laughing at him. “Her calling my attention to it like that,” Ebreth said, “under these circumstances...” He crossed his arms. “She’s just needling me,” he said. “And I guess she’s damn well earned the right. But I don’t appreciate her using this baby to do it.”

“I’m sorry,” Khyrisse said, and touched his shoulderblade. “It’s just a silly superstition, Ebreth.”

“It’s just Boule making fun of me,” he said, “and me not being at all in the mood for it. It’s nothing serious, and it’s nothing that out of line on her part, but I’d--really rather not spend any more time with her than I have to right now.”

“All right,” Khyrisse said quietly. “Let’s go home.”

Procrastination



“Vas,” called Val from the ground. “Vas!”

Vastarin abandoned the reconstruction work he was doing on the Federal Building immediately, swooping down to the street to give his sister an overly solicitous bow. Her arm was still broken, and he knew how cross it made her. “I am yours to command, sister mine.”

“You’ve never been anyone’s to command, you flutterhead.” She gave him a tired smile. “Listen, Vas... I’ve been thinking about this bombing. What if it’s connected to that vampire we saw last month?”

Vastarin’s smile vanished. “I thought Rani said it was the Gilans,” he said a little stiffly.

“She did, and I trust her... but think about it, brother.” Valende had begun to pace, tapping the fingers of her left hand against her cast. “It was like no vampire I’ve seen in all my years of undead-hunting--and there’s no negative material plane left to power it if it was. It must have come from somewhere. What if the Gilans are... creating them?”

“Psionically?” Vas pooh-poohed it with his hand, his mind whirling for an answer that would dissuade his rather fervent sister from pursuing this avenue further and endangering them both. He didn’t know what was powering his new ‘friends,’ but if it was psionics Cloak wouldn’t be having problems controlling his minions, of that Vas was sure, and the canny old vampire would never jeopardize a presence he’d spent so much effort keeping quiet by taking part in such a flamboyant and ultimately pointless attack. Vas couldn’t tell her either of those valid points, though. “If psionics could raise the undead, sister,” he said instead, “don’t you think the Diarians would have taken advantage of it years ago?”

“The illithids are an advanced race, you know. They may have technology the Diarians don’t.”

“But you said yourself you got strange magical readings from the girl it attacked,” he pointed out. “Mindflayers are hopeless at magic.”

“The reading could have been inaccurate.” Valende frowned at her brother. “Why are you being so uncooperative about this?”

“I just think it’s an implausible theory, that’s all!” Vas put his hands out. “Look... why don’t you mention it to Rani? Unusual creatures are her forte, if I recall; surely she could get a sense of whether there is truly any connection to be found here?”

Val sighed. “I hadn’t wanted to bother her,” she said quietly. “I thought maybe we--well, I thought hunting down that vampire-creature might be something productive we could do about all this.”

“No one’s even seen the creature in weeks,” said Vas. “It could have gone anywhere on the continent in its gaseous form like that. It would be a true needle in a haystack, Valende, and we don’t even know that it would help at all if we did find it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said quietly, reluctantly. “I guess I just thought... well. Never mind, then.”

Vas felt the sweat trickling down the back of his neck as she shuffled away. Too near for comfort. He couldn’t keep this up indefinitely; had to find a way to either double-cross Cloak with sufficient potency that Valende could only think he’d been intending it from the start, or a way to tell his sister what had been going on. The latter had a better chance of succeeding, he knew, but where could he possibly begin? Cloak was right: she was too fragile now, and she would take it like a dagger to the heart. Perhaps a year, perhaps two. Perhaps if he stalled the arch-vampire long enough, he could coax her far enough out of her depression to forgive him. Just a little while longer. Perhaps.

Tell Me Lies



Khyrisse washed her husband’s face with a cool cloth, hoping it might calm his tossing a little. It didn’t, or at least not much. Her two-day-old was sleeping better than he was. He’d been hiding his attacks from her since Lissa was born, trying to keep from causing her any extra stress or to salvage what he could of his pride Khyrisse didn’t know, but she couldn’t possibly go in with a dream spell now either way. She had gone to fetch Jack, once or twice in the past. Sometimes his voice could still get through to Ebreth when no one else’s could: Jack who had never judged him, never denied him, never let him down. Khyrisse touched his sweaty forehead with quiet pain. It was moot tonight, for though she might have left Ebreth unattended long enough to run to the Rat Trap, she couldn’t leave Lissa. And Jack couldn’t receive sending spells.

So she lied to him. She wasn’t proud of it, but his fever dreams were lying to him, she knew, making him think he was alone when Khyrisse was right here with him, telling him he was some kind of worthless carcass no one cared about when to her he was the most valuable person in the world. Why should their lies be the only dreams he was entitled to? Her child was his, she told him, a precious testament to their love and no one’s business but their own. It had been that beautiful night in the library. Schneider had gone off to Lianth to start his own family and there was no one but the three of them, never again. These things were true in Khyrisse’s dreams (well, actually Schneider had gone to Diaria to marry Shilree, but the archmage blamed that part on the chili she’d eaten at the ballgame that night; the point was he was somewhere else and happy enough that she didn’t have to feel guilty being glad about it.) Why not, anyway? If it couldn’t be true in real life, couldn’t they all at least live happily ever after somewhere?

She murmured on to him long into the night.

Don’t A Woman Need A Man, Try And Catch One If You Can



“Nothing.” Sashami was starting to sound depressed. “I tracked his horse back about a quarter mile before its footprints disappeared. As we saw it flying, I can only assume it approached Trassus by air and landed just outside the city limits. We have no way to track a flying beast.”

“Well,” said Justin, “have you learned anything more about him, at least?”

“He can summon demons,” Alderon said sullenly.

“I think it was his armor that did that,” Thalia piped up. “I mean, I’m not exactly advanced at spellcraft... but I’m pretty sure that the magic wasn’t coming from inside him.”

“Well, that’s a start,” said Justin optimistically.

“Maybe we could jump him when he’s not wearing his armor,” offered Alderon.

“That would be terribly dishonorable!” Sashami was horrified.

“Calling in a bunch of demons to kick our ass wasn’t?”

“Shelve it, guys,” sighed Chloe. “What about this Janus character? What do we know about him?”

“Janus was an elementalist of old,” Justin Moore said thoughtfully. “His persona has been used by a few different heroes, including the Mithril Dagger Hero Warp... most recently, he surfaced in assistance of Khyrisse and her Rat Pack, last fall.”

“I could ask her about it,” offered Thalia. “We’re friends, sort of.”

“I don’t think there’s much to tell,” said Justin. “His modus operandi has been to appear out of the blue, give assistance for no known reason, and then disappear again. I doubt we could find him again.”

“Then what are we going to do?” said Sashami, upset.

“Well...” Justin hesitated. “Well, I do have contacts with a certain amount of magical ability... it’s possible I could divine the position of the man’s prisoner. You said she was being held in some sort of stasis... that’s got to leave magical trace energy.”

“That would be wonderful, Justin.” Thalia squeezed his hand encouragingly.

He looked at her for a moment, like he was seeing her for the first time, and then seemed to pull away a little, discomfited. “Anyway,” he said, and put his hat on. “This could take me a while.”

“We’ll be on Annwych if you want us,” Chloe pledged.

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